7 January 2015 Out
Mary a little better though she could not manage to get up fot breakfast. Out to tip, Tesco’s and the Co op.
Professor Martin Brasier, who has died in a car accident aged 67, was a palaeobiologist and expert in “microfossils” – cell-like structures found in ancient rocks which are thought to represent the earliest forms of life.
Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, but no one knows when life arose and the search for fossils that would help to answer this question has been a highly contentious field, both because of the difficulties of proving fossil-like structures are truly biological in origin, and because of the scientific glory at stake.
By 2002 the honour of having found the most ancient microfossil had been held for several years by J W Schopf, a palaeobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1993 Schopf reported his discovery of microscopic worm-like structures in the Apex chert, a 3.465 billion year-old rocky outcrop in Pilbara, Western Australia. Schopf described the structures as microfossils of 11 species of photosynthetic microbes similar to cyanobacteria, and sent them to the Natural History Museum in London as examples of the Earth’s oldest fossils.
When Brasier, a scientist from Oxford, visited the museum in 1999 to photograph the specimens for a textbook, however, he was stunned to see, besides the cell-like structures that Schopf described, complex branching and folding structures very unlike microbial forms.
Brasier collected samples of his own from the Apex chert and spent hours tracing the structures inside the rocks with his son Alexander, a geology student at the University of Edinburgh. “We began to see that the ‘microfossils’ were part of a wide spectrum of odd-looking structures, most of which were far too chaotic to be called fossils,” Brasier recalled. Rather than being relics of early life, he concluded, the structures were mineral artefacts and the “shells” of the supposed microfossils were probably volcanic glass, ejected from a hydrothermal vent .
In 2002 Brasier launched an attack on Schopf’s Apex chart fossils in the journal Nature in which he concluded that the “purported microfossil-like structures” were mere “secondary artifacts formed from amorphous graphite”.
In his book, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin (2005), Robert Hazen reported a bizarre face-off between the two men in April 2002 at a scientific symposium, where they shared a stage. As Brasier spoke, Hazen wrote, “an agitated Schopf stood up and began to pace distractingly a dozen feet behind the podium. Back and forth he walked, hunched over, hands clasped firmly behind his back – a tense backdrop to Brasier’s staid delivery…
“As Brasier calmly outlined his arguments, the scene on stage shifted from awkwardly tense to utterly bizarre. We watched amazed as Schopf paced forward to a position just a few feet to the right of the speaker’s podium. He leaned sharply toward Brasier and seemed to glare, his eyes boring holes in the unperturbed speaker.”
Luckily that was as far as it went, but in 2011 when Brasier himself published a paper in Nature Geoscience (co-authored with David Wacey ), claiming to have found microfossils in rocks 3.4 billion years old – 20 miles away from Schopf’s discovery – he and his co-author were at pains to provide chapter and verse to prove their biological rather than mineral origins.
The Wacey/Brasier microfossils were found in sandstone deposits bracketed by layers of volcanic rock in an arid region known as the Strelley Pool Formation, dating from the early, oxygen-starved era known as the Archean. The microfossils, the researchers suggested, were the remains of ancient microbes similar to bacteria which exist today in places like hydrothermal vents and which live off and metabolise sulphur rather than oxygen for energy.
Microscopic plankton shells (foraminifera), found in Tanzania, dating from the Eocene – Oligocene boundary (REUTERS)
To rule out natural geologic processes, the scientists subjected their samples to a battery of tests, using the latest spectographic and electron microscopic equipment. They concluded that they satisfied three crucial tests of biological origin: they were precise cell-like structures all of a similar size; the cells were clustered in groups, attached to sand grains; and the chemical make-up was consistent with a sulphur-based metabolism.
The most convincing evidence was the discovery of tiny deposits of the iron-sulphur compound pyrite, known as “fool’s gold”, near, and in some cases on top of, the microfossils. Brasier and Wacey surmised that the ancient organisms had probably lived on pyrite and belched hydrogen sulphide – which smells of rotten eggs.
The Nature Geoscience article did not claim discovery of the earth’s oldest microfossils (though the claim was made in a press release by the University of Oxford). Schopf, meanwhile, maintained a dignified silence, though a colleague explained that he “very strongly defends his original claim, and is working to validate it”.
Martin David Brasier was born at Wimbledon, London, on April 12 1947 and educated at Oxford University and London University, where he took a PhD.
His interest in the fossil record developed during a year spent as ship’s scientist aboard the naval survey ship Fawn in the Caribbean in 1970. “From this,” he recalled, “I could see that it is the analysis of interconnections between and within systems that may provide a valuable key for decoding the early history of life.”
From then on he focused on the investigation of big transitions in the fossil record, pushing his researches ever deeper in geological time.
After posts as a lecturer at Reading and Hull universities, in 1988 he returned to Oxford as a lecturer in Geology at the university’s Life Sciences department, with a tutorial fellowship at St Edmund Hall. In 1996 he was appointed reader in earth sciences and, in 2002, professor of palaeobiology.
Brasier, whose other interests included music, archaeology and the history of science, was a popular lecturer and tutor, many of whose graduate students have gone on to faculty and research positions in leading universities around the world. His influence was celebrated last year with a gathering of his colleagues, organised by his recent graduate students.
Brasier served on numerous international bodies, including Nasa panels on life on Mars. Last year he won the Geological Society of London’s Lyell Medal for his research on early life.
He published more than 200 articles and papers in scientific journals and his books include Darwin’s Lost World: The Hidden History of Animal Life, published in 2009 as part of the Charles Darwin centenary celebrations.
He is survived by his wife, Cecilia, and by their daughter and two sons.
Professor Martin Brasier, born April 12 1947, died December 16 2014
The home secretary’s continued defence of her proposal to make international students leave immediately at the end of their university course and apply for a UK work visa from their country of origin is seriously misjudged – politically and economically (May defends plan to expel non-EU students, 6 January).
The general public are against unfair immigration, not immigration per se. Most people believe fairness is about making sure people who work hard and contribute are suitably rewarded. International students contribute enormously to this country, adding an estimated £8bn annually to the UK economy.
Little wonder most people – including an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters – believe we should not be reducing international students and should be encouraging them to stay and work in this country after their studies.
International graduates already face rules which are tougher than comparable countries: they have four months after their studies to find a “graduate” job of at least £20,300 per annum to stay in the UK. The home secretary’s latest proposal will make it even more burdensome for foreign students to stay in the UK. We risk losing talent that will enrich this country. Time to take students out of the government’s net migration target, ensuring that they become a priority for UK business and education rather than a Home Office fixated on lowering the number of immigrants whatever the costs.
Ryan Shorthouse (@RyanShorthouse)
Director, Bright Blue
• In his challenge to Theresa May’s plan to make sure foreign students leave the UK when they graduate, James Dyson needlessly conceded that this could be a “short-term vote winner” while arguing that it “leads to long-term economic decline” (No, Theresa May, we need those foreign graduates, 5 January).
In fact, the attitudes evidence clearly suggests this proposal would be a rather unpopular form of political populism, which fails to reflect the nuances in public attitudes towards immigration.
British Future’s detailed study found that voters across the political spectrum believe that student migration benefits Britain. Indeed, Conservative voters prove particularly supportive. Overall, only a fifth of voters believe it makes sense to count students in the immigration statistics at all. Three-quarters are in favour of graduates being allowed to stay in the UK after they graduate, at least for a period of time.
Most people think it’s good when Chinese and Indian graduates stay here to help British firms win business, rather than taking their skills back home to help international competitors. As Conservative MP Mark Field has said, “a welcoming approach to international students can clearly be seen to reflect British public opinion, rather to challenge it”.
Sunder Katwala (@sundersays)
Director, British Future
• I find James Dyson’s beliefs to be unbelievably selfish. He suggests we train foreign youngsters and then keep them employed here otherwise they may go home and create competition overseas. I have recently travelled through eastern Europe and heard the same thing said by every adult – “the brain drain of our youngsters to the UK and the US is killing our countries. No one will invest in us if we don’t keep our next generation of graduates.”
We should be proud that our education system is sought after by so many – but let’s train those who want it and then actively encourage them to go home and help develop their own countries. At the same time we need to work out just why we are so short of “home-grown” scientists and engineers and try to sort that out.
• James Dyson makes informed and detailed criticisms of Theresa May’s plan to expel international students on graduation, and make them apply for a new visa from overseas. But the situation is actually much worse than that described by Dyson. Theresa May’s plan assumes that overseas UK visa units are efficient and competent in issuing visas. This is not my experience with the UK visa unit located in the Beijing embassy. Rather, I would rate it as lazy and incompetent. Its decisions are actively hindering high-level UK-China scientific collaborations.
Here is an example from 2013. A highly qualified Chinese scientist with a recent PhD from the UK wishes to visit the University of Manchester at her own expense for two or three weeks to complete research started here. The research is deemed to be of world-class importance by the two UK funding agencies which support it. But her visa application is rejected by the Beijing visa unit.
Their reasons were not based on the facts of the case, but on false guesses and erroneous speculations. The facts were easily obtainable from me. Probably there are many other similar examples.
Professor emeritus Jonathan Connor
University of Manchester
• How refreshing to read James Dyson’s views on the government’s misguided attempts to curtail student visas in an attempt to limit immigration. As a member of HOST, for many years I’ve welcomed international students into my home, and very often we keep in touch after graduation. What impresses me is the huge amounts of money they contribute to UK universities. After their degrees some have gone home, but others have stayed here, using their expertise, knowledge and language skills to contribute to the success of British companies in international markets. How can we put the government in touch with the reality that limiting student visas is only harming the British economy?
Go-go dancers and classical concert-goers
It’s most gracious of Giles Fraser to nominate Richard Coles as someone who inspired him most in 2014 (31 December). In Fathomless Riches or How I went from Pop to Pulpit Richard writes how he toured nightclubs and met go-go dancers in cages. On page 84, he writes: “… one of whom I discovered years later was the Reverend Giles Fraser, Canon of St Paul’s and Guardian columnist in later incarnations”. Richard has indeed become the patron saint of psychological integration for many clergy.
Rev Tony Crowe
• Why have you fallen into the trap of using unflattering pictures of Ed Miliband? What an awful picture you chose for your report of the Lowry launch (Report, 6 January). I was at the event and had the opportunity to take several very good photographs of Ed. He shielded his eyes for a few seconds at the end of his superb speech so he could take questions from the press at the back of the room, including your correspondent. I question your motives for using such an awful image.
• I notice you again equate well-heeled with classical music concert-goers (Conductor strikes a sour note over Paris concert hall, 5 January). Out of interest, I Googled the cheapest seats for The Marriage of Figaro performed by Opera North this month: cost £15. The cheapest to see S Club 7 at Leeds arena are £41.
• Ian Jack (27 December) on going vegetarian said he thought “the hardest part” would be going without mince. An easy solution is to use soya mince. It is very adaptable and can be used in all the guises Ian mentions. Meat eaters I know agree that they can’t tell the difference. Another bonus point is that it is healthier, better in animal welfare terms and more environmentally friendly for the reasons Ian gives. No excuses now.
I am astonished at the level of public opposition to Ched Evans’s continuation of his football career (Report, 6 January). There have been other football players that have served prison sentences in the recent past (not to mention MPs): Joey Barton for common assault and Lee Hughes for causing death by dangerous driving, both of whom were allowed to resume their careers without public objection. Why are their crimes less unworthy? Why is Evans subject to such a devastating witch-hunt? Considering the events, I wonder how safe is the conviction and how fair his character assassination. Footballers are not role models, by and large; they have no peculiar moral standing. Some are paid sums out of all proportion to the benefit they provide to society, but income carries no responsibility, pace bankers. It is easy to bundle a list of signatures in response to a visceral objection, but it takes guts to risk commercial disadvantage by standing up to an inconsistency in the year of Magna Carta.
Dr Jana Robinson
Altrincham, Greater Manchester
• Sex offender Ched Evans is still serving his five-year sentence following his conviction for raping a 19-year-old vulnerable young woman. Following his 30 months in prison, he is now on licence for a further 30 months. He is also on the sex offenders register for life because he received a sentence in excess of 30 months for a sex offence. As a sex offender who does not acknowledge his offence, he should be assessed by the Probation Service as presenting a high risk of reoffending. Given that Mr Evans is supervised by the Probation Service, I wonder what contact they have had with Oldham Athletic and Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association?
Devastating legacy of Labour’s gambling act
As a partner of a gambling addict, I am so grateful to the Guardian for revisiting and highlighting the increasing devastation being caused, both to individuals and to communities, by the proliferation of of fixed-odds betting terminals, which have now become so widely and easily accessible thanks to the Gambling Act of 2005 (One life ruined on high-stakes machines, 3 January). But where is the political analysis and debate on how to resolve this?
Harriet Harman went on the record in August 2012 admitting that the clustering of betting shops was ruining the high street and people’s lives, and that she, along with the Labour government at the time, had made a mistake and needed to do something about it. This needs to be followed up. And I hope we see all political parties addressing this urgent problem in their forthcoming election manifestos.
Name and address supplied
Since July 2013, when the government introduced fees for anyone taking their employer to an employment tribunal, there has been a huge drop in claims. This is denying workers access to justice – and in particular women with discrimination claims. Official statistics show an 81% drop in claims lodged between April and June 2014, compared to the same time in 2013. All types of discrimination claims, for which a fee of up to £1,200 is now payable, have fallen: the worst affected being sex discrimination cases, which are 91% down. Even “straightforward” claims for unpaid wages attract a fee of £390, which may, in some cases, be more than the amount sought by the worker.
Despite ministers’ assertions that the change was needed to prevent unfounded and vexatious claims, no evidence has emerged that shows the drastic decline is attributable to the falling of such claims. On the contrary, evidence gathered by the TUC, Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice (England and Wales), the Law Society of Scotland and the universities of Bristol and Strathclyde shows that workers with genuine cases are being prevented from lodging their claims simply because of their inability to pay the fees.
This effectively means that a growing number of unlawful employment practices are going unpunished. When ministers say it’s not right that taxpayers should foot the bill for employment tribunals, they overlook the fact that the workers bringing claims are themselves taxpayers.
The government is currently reviewing its fees policy. It must, as part of this process, conduct a full equality impact assessment highlighting just how the charges are affecting workers bringing claims relating to sex, age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. Workers’ access to justice cannot be guaranteed while fees remain in place. The government must end this unfair and inequitable policy by abolishing fees at the first opportunity.
Frances O’Grady General secretary, Trades Union Congress
Len McCluskey General secretary, Unite the Union
Carolyn Jones Director, Institute of Employment Rights
Andrew Alexander The Law Society of Scotland
Andrew Caplan President, The Law Society of England and Wales
Margaret Lynch Chief Executive, Citizens Advice Scotland
John Hendy QC Old Square Chambers
Keith Ewing Professor of public law, King’s College London
Nicole Busby Professor of labour law, University of Strathclyde
Morag McDermont Professor of socio-legal studies, University of Bristol
Crusade against torture
While I acknowledge the efforts of US Senator Dianne Feinstein for investigating torture and releasing a report on the investigation, I wouldn’t go so far as to praise her (19 December). The results are praiseworthy, but her motives are suspect. Feinstein is hardly the obvious source for muck-raking revelations. She was, as member of the closed Senate select committee on intelligence since 2001, a notable defender of the intelligence services right up to the point that it became clear that they had been lying to her.
That was the real motive for her subsequent crusade. Members of the committee like to think of themselves as insiders, privy to secrets that cannot be trusted to the less worthy. Oversights everywhere suffer the same flaw, as noted in your comments on Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Britain will deny blame on torture). I am convinced that, if witnesses had told the committee the truth about torture and provided a palatable justification for it, Feinstein and the committee would have co-operated in suppressing all knowledge of it from the outside world. It was knowing that the intelligence community didn’t even trust her with the truth that outraged her.
At this point, the phrase “whatever works” comes to mind. Something like the truth has been admitted by one of the minders. So let’s compliment Feinstein for that, but remind her that the role of oversight is to know about and stop such behaviour before it happens, not after. Unless the capacity of the select committee and other intelligence oversight agencies can be improved to prevent a recurrence, the report will have had little long-term value.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
• I do not doubt that the Senate committee is right in saying that very little information is won by inflicting excruciating pain in the case of the CIA at Guantánamo Bay, but as a general statement I find this argument false and dangerous (19 December).
False: during the German occupation of France in the second world war, why would members of a French resistance group scatter as soon as one of theirs was arrested if not because they knew the Gestapo would obtain their names through torture?
Dangerous: the moment you introduce the notion of usefulness, the use of torture by the Germans in France or the French in Algeria can be deemed excusable.
• I asked a lawyer friend to don the mantle of state crimes investigator and determine which of the “20 key findings and conclusions from the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture (Torture: the stain on America, 19 December) were criminal offences in his view, rather than, for example, administrative or managerial failings. He came up with 13 out of the 20.
Whatever the tally, the Senate’s report indicates horrendous criminal activity – massive, prolonged and retrenched. Making the big assumption that action might follow, who would take criminal proceedings and against whom? What sanctions might follow?
Dangers of corporate power
Your editorial on corporate power (Democracy can battle back, 19 December) was an eye-opener. In particular the statistic “of the top 175 economic entities in the world in 2011, whole nations included, 111 were giant corporations”. This statistic shows that nations were outnumbered by almost two to one.
It would be interesting to project this statistic backwards in time to determine at which point parity was reached between top corporations and nations: ie the point at which maximising shareholder value became a more important objective than the provision of good governance for the benefit of voters. But probably there was no triggering event: just continued thoughtless acquiescence to the demand for greater deregulation.
However, it seems strange that this demotion of the importance of democracy has not received more attention from politicians. The editorial makes the point that nations have still the power to control the top corporations, but I am not so sure of the capability or resolve of the politicians to address the issues, and maybe it is already too late.
In the next few years the top corporations will be introducing greater technology in the areas of transportation and domestic care. While this may bring benefits to the consumers, there are also negative consequences, especially in the area of employment.
I am not convinced that these developments can be controlled by the politicians in a way to ensure benefits for the general public. They cannot even succeed in making the corporations pay their proper share of taxation.
The end of writing
The ultimate rationale of those who advocate the demise of cursive handwriting must be the eventual end of all writing (Is the pen mightier than the keyboard? 19 December). We already have speech-to-text and text-to-speech software, albeit still in fairly primitive forms that sometimes produce hilarious interpretations. But this software will be perfected so that mechanised subtitles on TV will no longer render the spoken “Nobel Laureate” as “noble lawyer rat” nor tell us that “Pope Francis visited a semi-Terry”, as happened earlier this year on the Australian Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). And when it is perfected we can throw away the keyboard as well as the pen! But why stop there? Just record all speech and play it back when needed. That would be the ultimate time saver, and we already have the technology. The recordings just need efficient storage with universal indexing and search facilities, also sound based. Perish the day!
Buderim, Queensland, Australia
Robots have their limits
Anil Seth’s choice of bumbling carpet-cleaning robots is misleading as a gauge of the current level of AI technology (12 December). Intelligent robots are already advanced and widely used in areas such as computer manufacturing and medical applications from surgery to elder care – areas where skill and productivity are more highly valued, with consequent implications for the labour pool.
With the help of technology, a human can already enjoy limited but extensive experience and function in a virtual reality with respect to active movement, some aspects of touch, sight, hearing and speech.
But what about smell and taste, those senses so deeply connected to the contexts of human memory and identity – and even joy? And what evidence is there of any ability to transmit a human sensibility, with the integrity of its consciousness, from a biological to a synthetic host? We don’t need just anybody, we need us.
The meaning of life is bound up in love, compassion and understanding, caring, wonder and joy, and in the expression of these things in creative and functional ways within the physical and social fabric of the world.
There is no sense in pursuing artificial replacements for these things. Surrogates for love and joy have been leading to more and more widespread addiction and alienation in our society. For these connections, simpler, more immediate paths are better.
Think of the pleasure of walking in from a cold night to a warm kitchen where fresh bread and soup have just been made, to hugs and conversations among friends. Where is the virtual reality that can provide – not imitate – this, or the artificial intelligence that can enact and experience it?
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
The future is grey
Is there such a thing as the school commute (12 December)? People may call it the school run but strictly speaking it should apply to two-legged locomotion. For those of us who take public transport to accompany children to school, this dutiful journey involves diversions, delays, busses erratically changing destinations … The school commute takes anything between 40 minutes and one hour and a half.
Yes, many mornings we brave the fumes and walk to school, situated in another borough. Yet there’s the expectation that having paid some $125 for a monthly bus pass one should be guaranteed a reasonably reliable service. If fewer people relied on four privately owned wheels, would there not be more pressure on the public transport service providers to provide a better public service? Could one dare to imagine that those public entities who suck out our blood with taxes might think of building more local schools for people to walk to rather than perpetually selling off land to build more luxury flats? Sadly, as China increasingly abandons its two-wheeled flying pigeons for four-wheeled gas-guzzling monsters, the future is grey, not orange.
Ian Traynor’s view of the EU is a gloomy one (19 December). He lists all the negative aspects he can think of and omits mentioning any positive aspects. David Smith, on the other hand, is very positive about sub-Sahara Africa, which is represented as an emerging economic power. Yet, many thousands of Africans are desperate to leave their sunny continent and seek to start a new life in the gloomy EU.
It is all in the eye of the beholder, and Brits rarely glorify EU accomplishments.
• Why do people seem to hate the US police (12 December)? Well, one very good reason is the so-called war on drugs. According to US Bureau of Prisons statistics, 51% of the people in federal prisons are there for victimless drug war crimes, and many of those are in prison for simple possession of an illegal drug.
Because of the war on drugs, America has become the world’s largest police state with more people in prison then any other nation on Earth.
Tempe, Arizona, US
• In your article Britain is stalked by hunger (12 December), apparently the only positive response from the government is to support the distribution of unsold supermarket food to the poor. Clearly a case of “Let them eat stale cake.”
Awanui, New Zealand
SIR – The election campaign has started far too soon. Four months of boredom ought to ensure the lowest turnout ever.
There is plenty of unfinished business the Government could be concentrating on – notably “English votes for English laws”. Let us stick to the traditional three-week campaign. This is not America.
SIR – Three weeks should be plenty of time for the parties to communicate their manifestos to the electorate.
I will vote for the first major party that pledges to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
SIR – Pantomime politics is back in full swing. Will the Tories destroy the NHS? Will Labour destroy the economy? Will Ukip destroy the EU? Will the Lib Dems destroy everything?
Britain deserves better than the same old negative sniping of insular politicians going through repetitive pre-election
Letcombe Regis, Berkshire
SIR – We are to be force-fed dubious facts and figures for months from politicians. I wish I could hibernate until May.
I do worry about the economy, which is delicate and at least has improved in the past five years. One thing is sure: a Labour government has never left the economy in a good state.
SIR – I think David Cameron came across very well on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning. He gave assurances that the NHS was in good hands under a Tory government and I believed him.
SIR – A Conservative Party spokesman has commented on Labour’s “chaos of unfunded spending promises”. What do the Tories propose to do about the largest unfunded promise of all – the unfunded public-sector pensions that are kept off the balance sheet?
SIR – David Cameron’s wish to bring forward the in-out EU referendum will appeal to a huge number of voters. But to insist that Eurosceptic ministers toe the government line and campaign to stay within a reformed EU before anyone has the faintest idea what reforms will be achievable undermines his credibility.
SIR – I think I can trust Mr Cameron to promise to do something about the EU.
SIR – Charlie Taylor, the chief executive of the National College for Teaching, should not underestimate the discouraging effect various factors have upon teacher recruitment in Britain. These include the low standard of state education, the lack of discipline in schools, acceptance of disruptive pupils in classrooms, putting children of all abilities in the same classes, inadequate and useless subject matter and the egalitarian attitude of many teachers and administrators, who refuse to advocate competition or excellence in anything.
These problems should be addressed before any improvement in the numbers or quality of recruitment can be expected.
Terry Deary’s ‘Horrible Histories’ series is popular with children
SIR – I was glad that Robert Peal expressed his concerns about Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series.
Dumbing down history to the extent that this series does is neither necessary nor justifiable. For those pupils who are likely to take an intelligent interest in history, the approach is patronising and presents a barrier to a rounded study of a subject which has been presented both accurately and attractively by other authors.
SIR – The “non-standard landing” at Gatwick Airport last week revealed the folly of closing Manston Airport. The Virgin Atlantic flight could have landed on one of the longest and widest runways in the country, just 65 miles away, avoiding the closure of the world’s busiest single-runway airport for over three hours.
I K Simcock
East Grinstead, West Sussex
SIR – Steve Donovan notes that Lydd Airport has been renamed “London Ashford”. Kidlington Airport, which is 62 miles from London, was renamed “London Oxford” in 2009.
SIR – Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster is nowhere near Sherwood Forest, the supposed home of the legendary law-breaker, and not even in the same county.
SIR – Why did the Duke of York visit Jeffrey Epstein, the American multi-millionaire and convicted sex offender, knowing that the connection would look bad?
Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
SIR – We must give the Royal family our collective support in times of difficulty.
The media should spend its time scrutinising politicians and show the Royal family deference as unifiers of country and Commonwealth.
Fittleworth, West Sussex
The NHS is in a mess after Labour’s blunders
SIR – Ed Miliband tells us that only the Labour Party can save the NHS. He appears to have forgotten the last Labour government’s record.
It allowed the NHS to squander millions of pounds on a computer system that did not work. It oversaw the expansion of an inefficient NHS bureaucracy, whose fat-cat leaders flit from NHS trust to NHS trust hoovering up taxpayers’ money in pay-outs and pay-offs on the way.
It virtually doubled the pay of GPs without extracting the necessary extra efficiencies from them, hence the current chaos in A&E departments.
It mismanaged the recruitment and training of nurses, forcing the NHS to recruit staff abroad to make up the shortfall.
The NHS cannot afford another Labour government.
SIR – I wonder just how much of the current NHS budget is used to repay the debt loaded on to it by Gordon Brown with his shifty Private Finance Initiative.
Earning their honours
SIR – The “pen-pushing civil servant” Michael Goddard no doubt did good work for his country on radio frequencies for mobile phones. No doubt he drew an equally good, state-funded salary for his excellent work and received an even better state-funded pension.
I wonder if any of this work was done in his own time, on a voluntary basis. All the people I know who have received the OBE have earned it by volunteering to help those less fortunate or less able than themselves.
SIR – Apparently Geoffrey Boycott’s suspended sentence precluded him from obtaining the much-deserved honour of a knighthood.
It seems ironic, then, that we are still required to use the title “Lord” for various criminals who have actually been to prison.
Woodsetts, South Yorkshire
Wartburgs and all
SIR – My father was the very proud owner of a Wartburg model 311, purchased in 1965. He owned many cars during his lifetime but this was the only one he could ever afford to buy brand new. It was his pride and joy, despite being somewhat unreliable.
He became an expert at changing the cylinder-head gasket (he always travelled with a spare in the boot).
SIR – I took a test drive in a Wartburg in Northampton in the late Sixties. I remember the puzzled expression on the face of the young salesman when he first experienced the free-wheel feature of the car when he decelerated.
It was a very quiet car, in spite of the two-cylinder two-stroke engine, but the body was heavy, so performance and handling were horrible. I bought a Mark 1 Vauxhall Viva instead.
Sutton St Nicholas, Herefordshire
SIR – If Mr Launert had been in St Helens in the Sixties he would have spotted a Wartburg Knight saloon trundling around town. It was a boring faded beige colour and seemed to be a cross between an old Volvo and a rusty tank.
St Helens, Lancashire
Darkest Surrey: a postcode lost in the woods
Historic round, octagonal and fluted pillar boxes at a Royal Mail depot (Alamy)
SIR – We recently moved house. The next day it became apparent that any delivery driver using satnav could not find us using the given postcode.
It transpired that, because our road was divided halfway along by woods through which it becomes a bridle path, satnav systems were sending drivers to the other end only. The postman said it had been a problem for years.
We asked the council to email us a change-of-address form enabling us to change our postcode to that of an adjoining road. We have added the name of this road to our address, and people can now find us.
SIR – It has been possible for about 25 years to pinpoint (to within one metre) every letter box in the country with a 12-digit grid reference and to describe this location uniquely with a two-digit extension to the postcode. This is useful for the delivery of goods and also for the emergency services.
In 1990 I consulted the Post Office national HQ and began to create a database for my local authority area. A few months later a senior officer of the Ordnance Survey paid me a visit and a national project began.
We soon ran into the problem of who “owns” an address description – the local authority rates department, the street-naming department or the local historians who clung to ancient county names?
I gave up after 10 years.
SIR – The “Baby Cycle” on Anne Brooke-Smith’s new washing machine allows for a 9kg load.
This is clearly designed to assist after multiple births, for which one used to require a twin tub.
Globe and Mail:
Sir, – Those looking for a name for Lucinda Creighton’s new party should note, as Enda Kenny may ruefully reflect, that the name of the former Fine Gael junior minister contains the letters which spell out “Chagrin Uncoiled”. – Yours, etc,
Dr JOHN DOHERTY,
Sir, – I can’t help but wonder if Lucinda Creighton has missed the boat in her decision to launch a new political party. It reminds me a little of the launch on January 1st of UTV Ireland. After a five-minute promotional video, we were treated to an hour-long episode of a programme set on a Yorkshire farm.
UTV Ireland won’t be in top gear for a few months until some of its new programmes start, seemingly a bit like Lucinda’s as yet unnamed party.
Last year when I attended the “monster rally” in the RDS, there was an undoubted air of anticipation and energy in the hall that something exciting was afoot. Since then, however, we have had the local elections and the marked increase in support for Independents and Sinn Féin.
While large numbers of people have turned away from the heretofore large parties such as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, they now consider Independents to be a viable alternative. People such as Shane Ross and Michael Fitzmaurice talk about forming an alliance of Independents as opposed to a new party.
The present supporters of Independents will not necessarily move to a new party unless they are offering something very radical which people can identify with. So far I don’t see much evidence of this with Lucinda’s new party.
Let’s hope we get something more substantial soon, otherwise I for one will be waving goodbye to this particular boat. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Lucinda Creighton is quoted as saying, in the context of the pre-launch of her new political party, that the party wants to make Ireland “a great place to innovate, to grow, to build and expand a small business, to employ people, to work and to be a consumer”.
The choice of the word consumer, as opposed to citizen, is revealing. As a citizen of this republic, I will not be marching behind the flag of the new party, which already suggests a prioritisation of business over people and a preference for an economy rather than a society.
The much-heralded party promises much of the same, I’m afraid. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Rehash(tag)? – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Reboot Ireland. Control? Alternative? Delete. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – A “new” political party is being set up to “reboot” the old system, which in computing terms simply means restarting the old system as it is. If this new party was genuinely about reform shouldn’t it be called “Upgrade”?
Ms Creighton loyally voted in favour of every single cutback imposed by this Government on the most vulnerable in society and not once in her entire career as a Fine Gael TD did she do a single thing to affect the removal of even one of the many allowances and tax reliefs that allow the well-off to minimise the amount of tax they pay. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – How about the Pip (pig in a poke) Party? – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Old-style politics prevails; the new party has not even been named and we have promises to reduce or eliminate USC already tabled. What the electorate wants is real and sustainable change to both the way the Government and the Civil Service is managed.
This is what we were promised at the last election and one has only to look back at 2014 to see a chaotic Government, stumbling from crisis to crisis, with absolutely no change of any significance. I say to the new party, take care, great care, and be aware that the electorate is demanding change and will no longer be fooled by promises of largesse. – Yours, etc,
A chara, – The provision of accommodation to the homeless in Dublin shows what can be done when the political will exists. The lack of a similar response for the most vulnerable in our healthcare system is appalling (“Number of patients on hospital trolleys at record high”, January 6th).
It is a failure of successive governments and ministers for health that they are still trying to manage “an emergency” now ongoing for a decade. – Is mise,
Dr CATHAL NUGENT,
Loughrea, Co Galway.
Sir, – Could someone who knows about these things explain what they do better in smaller European countries that don’t have a trolley crisis? Could we adopt some of their more successful strategies rather than annually agonise over ours? – Yours, etc,
Sir, – How many more years of this new year hospital bed crisis will have to happen before it dawns on people. You cannot have your Christmas pudding and eat it. Our hospital services slow down from mid-December to early January.
People continue to become ill during this period. Not to mention the countless people stuck on waiting lists. The usual conveyor belt of clinical assessment combined with diagnostic imaging and laboratory tests slows down. Then there is the slowing down of effective physiotherapy and occupational therapy services to minimise hospital stays. The usual multidisciplinary meetings do not take place, and therefore discharges do not take place at the usual rate.
Unless we look at the Christmas holiday as a shorter period, we will always have this January problem. So, no more surprises then. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Perhaps the Minister for Health is in A&E himself with a score throat? I say this due to the deafening silence from the normally very vocal Leo Varadkar. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – In his analysis, Mark Weiss warns of “brinkmanship on both sides” (“Israelis and Palestinians play risky game”, January 5th). How is attempting to hold Israel to account through the International Criminal Court “brinkmanship”? How is using multilateral mechanisms such as the UN Security Council to end the occupation of Palestine “brinkmanship”? How is calling for Israel to take full responsibility, as the occupying power, for the people it controls under a brutal military occupation “brinkmanship”?
Mr Weiss’s “dangerous scenario” of “a diplomatic vacuum” is a direct result of Ireland and the EU failing to fulfil their obligations under international law and the UN charter. Shamefully, the EU and Ireland (and the US, of course) have also failed to impose any kind of meaningful economic sanctions on Israel. Ireland and the EU must do everything possible to ensure that the Palestinian people attain their full human rights to self-determination, justice and freedom. Without significant external pressure, Israel’s occupation of Palestine will not end, Palestinian refugees will never return home, and we will have been complicit in one of the most terrible injustices the world has ever seen. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I read with some dismay of the seemingly unstoppable advance of JD Wetherspoon pubs in Ireland (Una Mullally, “Protect the uniqueness of Irish pubs from JD Wetherspoon’s inexorable advance”, Opinion & Analysis, January 5th).
While I have to admit that the attraction of cheaper pints has a certain obvious appeal, having visited a few Wetherspoon pubs in the UK, I have to say that the word average could have been invented for them. Average in every way, exceptional in none.
If the arrival of this chain results in the loss of many traditional pubs, community hubs which have evolved over generations, then that will be very expensive cheap drink indeed.
The jobs argument holds no water either if every Wetherspoon pub that opens costs the jobs of those who work in every old-school pub that closes as a result. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Maybe the Weatherspoon pubs are revenge for all the similar-looking Irish pubs all over the world. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I believe that Charles Haughey instituted the style of always sitting beside the driver when in State cars, thus letting the populace know that he was essentially just one of us. Since then, not one government minister has had the courage to sit in the back! – Yours, etc,
PADRAIG J O’CONNOR,
Rathfarnham, Dublin 14 .
Sir, – One thing is certain. Charles J Haughey will not have his many good deeds listed in the pages of The Irish Times, nor will its snooty readers acknowledge that, as leaders go, Mr Haughey was good for Ireland, despite all the old and new muck raked up. – Yours, etc,
Bantry, Co Cork.
Sir, – May I dissent, in one respect only, from the unqualified praise for Aiden Gillen’s portrayal of the titular character in the RTÉ drama Charlie? The actor reincarnated “The Boss” for his TV audience in looks, hooded eyes, walk, etc. CJH’s vocal quality was wonderfully conveyed by Gillen, except that the register wasn’t deep enough.
In Olivier’s preparation for Othello on stage (1964), he managed to lower his natural tenor register by a whole octave to perform the Moor. Similar vocal weight was needed for the “black prince of Irish politics”. – Yours, etc,
Rathfarnham, Dublin 16.
Sir, – Is the withdrawal of medical cards from vulnerable people to maintain pay levels for medical professionals not a conscience issue? What about increasing taxation on market-variable contributory private pensions to fund guaranteed public pensions?
People vote for parties rather than individuals because they believe a collective working together consistently is more effective. Questions are debated and policy agreed within the party. Opinions within the group may vary, but that is beside the point. With “free voting”, there is no collective, and thus no point in voting for a party.The hypocrisy of taking advantage of a party’s supporters when it comes to getting elected, only to take an opposing position when difficult decisions need to be made is glaring. The members who canvassed in all weathers, put up posters, distributed leaflets, helped write speeches, organised public appearances, maintained websites, prepared press releases and social media updates, and who ferried voters from their homes to the polling booth on election day are cast aside in favour of the sudden appearance of a “conscience” once the candidate is safely in office.
The last notable point is the total silence of Sinn Féin in the debate. As it stands, the party line is held so tight that its members do not appear to be permitted even the free expression of their individual views. That they would have a free vote in accordance with their individual consciences is obviously out of the question. – Yours, etc,
Phibsboro, Dublin 7.
Sir, – The report “Road Safety Authority says 42% of those killed in vehicles not wearing seat belts” (January 2nd) is numerically inaccurate and misleading.
What your reporter seems to have done is to add the percentage of drivers not wearing seat belts (16 per cent) to the percentage of passengers not wearing seat belts (26 per cent) to get 42 per cent. Basic arithmetic would say that you should add the numbers in each category to get 23/118 or 19 per cent, a less dramatic figure but a true representation of the percentage of vehicle fatalities not wearing seat belts.
What you published is equivalent to saying if 50 per cent of men read The Irish Times and 50 per cent of women also read The Irish Times, then 100 per cent of the total population read it. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – One of Fintan O’Toole’s cultural lows of 2014 was the “Government’s malign neglect of the arts and culture: not a red cent extra in the budget” (December 27th). At 0.46 per cent of the national budget, the percentage of Irish government spending on the arts is one of the lowest in Europe, and less than a third of the European average. Let’s hope that 2015 will bring real recognition of the crucial role the arts play in our society. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Now that Christmas is well and truly over, how many penalty points will be issued to those people caught driving with antlers and red noses attached to their cars? – Yours, etc,
I returned home from the States for Christmas and on December 31st, my father, an 86-year-old man, was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital after suffering from what appears to have been a stroke/seizure.
I have to commend every healthcare worker I came in contact with. Their concern, friendliness and approachability were reassuring in a time of stress. From ambulance workers to receptionists and porters, the catering staff, nurses and resident doctors, all went about their jobs with quiet resolve and concern.
Yes, it was disheartening to see the A&E area resemble a M*A*S*H unit at full capacity rather than a hospital on a regular day.
I know that if the same were to happen in the US there would be hell to pay. There is only one way to change the system – get the politicians involved. Make it an issue in the upcoming election and vote.
So, before we chastise health workers who are doing a great job in difficult circumstances, let’s remind those who can influence the system that it is their responsibility to seek the welfare of their fellow countrymen.
Address with editor
Haughey – ‘flawed’ but still good
Charles J Haughey was a man who was a politician, and he was much more of a man than many who come to the fore yet again to dance on his grave.
He was not a monster who cared for nobody but himself, yet the real truth is not in the interests of writers and film-makers, who pretend it is only themselves who have special insight and the inner track on the story of Mr Haughey.
He was once accused by Garret FitzGerald of having a “flawed pedigree” in the cut and thrust of party politics, yet it later came to light this could have meant he’d got a large bank debt written off, as did Mr FitzGerald around the same time.
One thing is certain.
Mr Haughey will not have his many good deeds listed. But he was good for Ireland, despite all the old – and new -muck raked up to sling at his close family.
Bantry, Co Cork
Lowering the tone in ‘Charlie’
May I dissent, in one respect only, from the unqualified praise for Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of the titular character in the RTE drama, ‘Charlie’?
The actor reincarnated ‘The Boss’ for his TV audience in looks, hooded eyes, walk, etc. CJH’s vocal quality was wonderfully conveyed by Gillen, except that the register wasn’t deep enough (‘Scrap Saturday’ in the 1990s did it better).
In Olivier’s preparation for ‘Othello’ on stage (1964), he managed to lower his natural tenor register by a whole octave to perform the Moor. Similar vocal weight was needed for the “black prince of Irish politics”.
Rathfarnham, Dublin 16
In the name of God . . .
Having had more than my usual amount of socialising during the Christmas season, one realisation dawned on me: how so many people use the word ‘God’ in every second exclamation they make. Otherwise, the favourite is ‘you know like …’
“Oh my God, isn’t her dress a show?; “Oh God, I’m late.”; “Oh God, he’s drunk.”
Few people can explain the word ‘God’. Long ago, in Ireland, there was respect for the name of God but nowadays there is a growing disrespect and an absurd feeling that it is somehow clever and glib to refuse to bow to the omnipotent creator.
None can explain the mystery and awesome concept behind the word.
When they try to argue about the existence of God, many become lost in a plethora of pseudo-intellectual nonsense.
Because no one else understands the mystery either, it usually happens that the one with the most elaborate words wins.
Of course, for many people, the exclamation ‘Oh God’ has become utterly unintentional now. Yet, with some thought, we could educate ourselves.
Can we not humbly accept our limitations vis-a-vis the existence of a superior reality which is beyond our own comprehension?
At least, let’s stop disgracing ourselves, by denigrating the sacred with our ignorant misuse of the word ‘God’.
Even the meaningless exclamation ‘Wow’ is more according to our worldly nature.
Angela Mac Namara
Churchtown, Dublin 14
Famine and ‘The Producers’
Dr John Doherty (Letters, Irish Independent, January 6) draws a false analogy between the Mel Brooks movie ‘The Producers’ and the proposed TV sitcom set during the Famine.
‘The Producers’ is an hilarious movie that uses the rise of Hitler in a totally mocking way, coupled with the aim of making the play become a complete and almost instant flop to defraud the play’s investors.
One of the climactic jokes is the stunned reaction of the audience to being unexpectedly presented with a play about Hitler’s rise to power and his plans to conquer the world.
There are no jokes aimed at the persecution of Jews.
In complete contrast, the reality of the Famine will be the central context for the proposed “comedy”, and not simply the events of the years leading up to it.
Had ‘The Producers’ been located in an extermination camp it would never have been released, let alone “produced”.
Rathfarnham, Dublin 16
Inda and Lucinda …kinda rhymes?
Beaumont, Dublin 9
Crippling cost of childcare
Since Charlie McCreevy introduced tax individualisation in 2000, staying at home to take care of the children has been effectively penalised by the state. Professional childcare now, on average, absorbs a salary of around €30,000 for just two children.
The question of whether the Government (by which I mean the taxpayer) will now be tapped to subsidise the divestment of responsibility for raising one’s own children is the stuff of which socialist dystopias are made. Cut out the middle men: raise your own children.
Sandymount, Dublin 4
All’s fair in classroom wars
As a teacher of some 41 years I would like to see myself as being as fair and unbiased as the next.
If it should come to grading the following groups I feel I may be already hotwired towards favouring them: my own immediate and extended family; the children of friends and colleagues; children experiencing adolescent wobbles; children experiencing trauma or bereavement; children from dysfunctional backgrounds; children of families with severe financial problems; children who feel low or depressed; witty and chirpy guys; guys who try hard but never quite get it; gifted athletes; gifted musicians; academically gifted children and the children of the local mechanic who would never see a neighbour stuck.
Gearoid O Ciarain